YOU ARE STANDING amid a gathering of truth-seekers from all over Palestine and beyond, listening intently to the most radical preacher you have ever heard: Jesus of Nazareth. He has been touring around Galilee, proclaiming the arrival of God’s everlasting kingdom, healing every disease in sight, and casting out demons. It is no surprise that He is generating enormous interest, but you can see that He isn’t merely someone to marvel at; He is the fulfilment of God’s ancient promise to raise up for Israel a prophet like Moses—a messenger whose words will be those of God Himself (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). Today, swamped by a sea of eager faces and hungry souls, Jesus has climbed a mountainside, just like Moses did all those years ago. You and your fellow disciples—perhaps a few hundred or so—have followed Him up the mountain, leaving the hullabaloo behind you. Jesus is sitting casually on a rocky ledge further up the slope from where you are standing. Every eye is focused on Him, and every ear is attuned to His voice. You crane your neck to see Him more clearly, and in that moment He looks your way.
Holiness through human effort?
‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago,’ Jesus announces, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.” But I tell you’—He pauses for emphasis—‘that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement … And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell’ (Matthew 5:21-22). You all gasp. There is no fire on the mountain, no lightning or thunder above it, and no shuddering inside it, but your orthodox world is rocking. Those four words, ‘But I tell you,’ carry the weight of divine authority. Jesus is revising and intensifying the law as if appointed to do so by God Himself. Murder is a capital offence, but that has never troubled ordinary folk like you, since you are not likely to deliberately kill someone. Yet Jesus has just made it worryingly easy for you to bring upon yourself the condemnation that would be yours if you had killed someone. All you have to do is despise or disparage someone in a flash of anger, and you will be as guilty of sin as a murderer.
As you continue to listen, Jesus gives similar treatment to the law against adultery—another offence to which Moses attached the death penalty (Leviticus 20:10). Committing this offence has always required physical contact, but now you, even you, can become a fully-fledged adulterer—unclean in the sight of God and worthy of death—simply by looking at another person with lust in your heart (Matthew 5:27-28).1 Everyone around you falls into sober silence. You dare not move.
But Jesus isn’t done yet. He forbids divorce except in instances of sexual immorality (Matthew 5:31-32; see also Deuteronomy 24:1), abolishes the time-honoured practice of oath-taking (Matthew 5:33-37), and then makes His most sweeping amendment yet. Ever since the days of Moses, you have had the legal right to inflict on an attacker whatever injuries they inflict on you: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, bruise for bruise (Exodus 21:23-24). Not any more, says Jesus. Now, you are not even allowed to defend yourself against such a person. Rather, you must go to the opposite extreme and allow them to injure you in whatever way they wish. If they force you to do some work for them, you must do even more than what they want; and if they demand something from you, you must give them even more than what they demand (Matthew 5:38-41). No longer are you to love only your fellow Israelites. ‘Love your enemies,’ says Jesus, ‘and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:43-45). His words sink forcefully into your belly, sit there uneasily for a moment, and then explode. Loving your enemies means associating with people who are unclean in the sight of God. It means showing care and concern for people whose values and beliefs offend your deepest loyalties, passions and convictions. It means serving and blessing those who annoy you, provoke you or mistreat you. Keeping the law never just meant shunning sin, but now more than ever it also means acting with extreme kindness toward others—particularly those who behave with extreme nastiness toward you. If you don’t love your enemies in this uncompromising way, you are a lawbreaker.
Jesus’ ground-breaking commandments shock you to the core. How can you possibly obey them with the flawless consistency that God requires? He has raised the bar of acceptable behaviour up, up, up into the stratosphere. You have always been a faithful adherent of God’s law, but the game has suddenly become unwinnable: holiness is out of reach. How can you ever hope to be righteous enough for the Most High God, the Holy One of Israel?
Only a few short years later, Jesus answered this conundrum decisively. In fact, He demonstrated that He is its answer—the answer intended by God since before creation. This is good news not only for the Israelites but for us Gentiles too, since God’s law also exposes our sin. We, like the Israelites, have turned away from God and trusted in ‘idols’ (money, possessions, lifestyle, achievements, status, popularity) for a sense of identity, security and wellbeing. And we, like the Israelites, have poured scorn on our neighbour, harboured unclean thoughts about our neighbour, failed to care for our neighbour. We humans are a proud lot: we like to claim that we don’t need saving; if we have a problem, it’s one that we can fix on our own. But the LORD’s radiant commands—including those decreed by Jesus—give light to our eyes when otherwise we would be in the dark. They show us that, without God’s help, we don’t measure up to God’s standard of holiness; we are infested with sin and undeserving of His sacred presence (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:10).2
The end of the law
Enter Jesus Christ, who has saved us from the guilt pronounced upon us by the law. He has fulfilled the law perfectly, so bringing it to completion and robbing it of its power to condemn us. Here’s how He did it. First, He showed by His obedient life that He was ‘a lamb without blemish or defect’ (1 Peter 1:19; see also 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15)—the one who could serve as the faultless sacrifice for our sins. Then He went to the cross and, in keeping with God’s law, became ‘a sin offering for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21; see also Romans 8:3; Hebrews 7:27; 9:12,26-27; 10:10-12,14)—a sacrificial ‘lamb’ who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Although He was innocent, He took the full weight of our sins upon Himself and suffered the sentence dictated by the law: Death. He thus fulfilled the law conclusively, and so brought it to a state of final accomplishment. The law’s finger-pointing was finished forever—but Jesus wasn’t finished at all. Having absorbed the lethal sting of the law on our behalf so that it couldn’t sting us again, He went on to win a crucial victory for each of us: He overcame death itself by rising from the grave. If there was any suspicion that our sins were still stuck to Him or that He wasn’t entirely righteous, this suspicion vanished when He ascended into heaven. God had received Him (and us with Him) into the inner sanctuary, where only the holy can dwell.
The supreme purpose of God’s law, then, was always this: to illuminate our imperfect condition (Romans 3:20) and so highlight our need for Jesus Christ, our perfect Saviour (Galatians 3:24). If we claim to have never sinned, the perfect light of God’s law shows up our defects. But if we have faith in Jesus to save us from our sins, we are included in Him and have a full share in His righteousness (Romans 3:20-24,28; 4:4-5; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:4-5,8-9). We are not obliged to keep the law of Moses, since Christ has brought it to perfect completion.3 Rather, we are to fulfil the ‘law of Christ’ by carrying each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). If we love our neighbour in this way, we will be fulfilling the whole law (Galatians 5:14; see also Romans 13:10; James 2:8)—not so that we can be saved, but because we are already saved through Christ’s death, resurrection and eternal life.
So, here’s what to do: Put your faith in Jesus Christ and love your neighbour, knowing that you have been saved from your sins and made eligible to live in God’s holy presence forever.
- Jesus gave this command to men with regard to women, but in our modern egalitarian society it is equally important for women to take heed of it too.
- Even those who are not aware of God’s law are guilty of sin. Many non-Christians have a good instinct as to what God requires, or at least a built-in moral compass that they feel obliged to follow. Like us, however, they haven’t always lived up to what they sincerely believe is right (Romans 2:14-15). Accordingly, by their own standards—let alone God’s—they too are guilty.
- People who believe in Jesus are not required to do any of the following in order to be saved:
- abstain from particular foods (Leviticus 11:4-42; Matthew 15:11,17-20; Mark 7:15,18-19; Acts 10:10-15);
- avoid working on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; 35:1-2; Leviticus 19:3,30; 23:3; 26:2; Matthew 12:1-13; Mark 3:1-5; Luke 13:10-16; 14:1-5; John 5:6-9,16-17; 7:21-24);
- practise circumcision (Leviticus 12:3; Romans 2:25-29; 3:30; 4:9-12; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 5:2-3,6; 6:15);
- uphold standards of ceremonial cleanness (Matthew 15:1,19-20; Luke 11:38-41);
- make sacrifices to God so that our sins can be forgiven (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12,25-26; 10:1-4,11-12,14,17-18).